Longtime Illness Brings America to its Knees

June 3, 2020 Ben DiPietro

There will be no story this week about ethics, compliance, or inspired good behavior. No discussion of COVID-19, which is remarkable considering it was just over one week ago when the deadly virus was the only thing that mattered.

Not anymore. 

Racism and white supremacy-the one illness the U.S. has been battling since the time from before it even was a nation-is resurfaced, rearing its most ugly head and making its presence felt at this most surreal moment in history.

If COVID changed our lives, George Floyd and his senseless, unnecessary, race-based murder at the knee of a Minneapolis policeman is stress-testing the American experiment in democracy in ways not seen since 1968. 

1968 was the year Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the year Chicago police beat protesters at the Democratic National Convention; and coincidentally, the year a deadly flu pandemic killed between one million and four million people.

It also was the year I first came face to face with racism. I was 6 years old, living in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, in an apartment building owned by my grandfather, and which also housed my father’s two sisters and their families, among others. 

Up the street from us on Ovington Avenue was an apartment where some African Americans lived. They were the only black people I had ever seen up close. 

I don’t know how it happened, but one day I found myself up by their building, and I started talking to them. I remember one of them went by the name Birdie; I don’t recall much else, other than I liked talking with them. I also remember some of them looking around with an uncomfortable look as my visit progressed.

I came to realize my mere presence interacting with them breached a social protocol, and could have resulted in a fight, which is almost what happened when some of my cousins saw me with them and came over to drag me away.

They told me I couldn’t be there with them. I asked why. You just can’t, they said, not wanting to tell the truth to a 6-year-old. Too young to understand, I remained confused as to why I couldn’t be friends with the people who didn’t look like me.

I sit now and wonder about Birdie, and his family. How was his life? How many stories could he tell me about his experiences with police, about the times he’s been pulled over for driving while black? How many times did he have to fear for his safety, accept a humiliation to avoid a confrontation, bow down to a boss to keep a job?

Flash-forward nine years to 1977, we moved to a better part of the neighborhood, into an apartment in one of those brownstone houses for which Brooklyn is famous. I attended a private, Jesuit high school in Manhattan, but still hung out with my grammar school friends, many of whom went to the local public high school.

The 1970s were a time of forced busing, where minority students were moved into better-funded and mostly white schools so they could access better resources and programs. It was a flashpoint issue. The black and brown kids assigned to our local high school had to take a bus that ran right past the corner me and my friends claimed as our own.

At the age of 15, I was a follower, not a leader. I had no moral compass, at least not one of which I was aware. Still, I knew right from wrong. 

Knowing it was wrong, and feeling bad after the fact, nonetheless I would join my friends and jump on the city buses when the minority kids were headed back to the nearby train station to go home. We would fight with them, fists flying for three or four stops until their station came up, not caring who was struck, as long as they weren’t the same color as you.

I really didn’t want to fight, but if I didn’t throw down, my friends would beat me far worse than anything that happened on those buses. 

I’m sitting here in my apartment in a neighborhood adjacent to the one in which I grew up, thinking about this experience, and how it frames what I am watching happen across this country. 

I think about some of my friends who were on those buses, and how, when they recount this story, they tell it with pride and excitement, as if a point of accomplishment. And I think about the one or two who changed their outlook, and who feel as shamed as I do about it all.

Throughout the weekend, I listened to and read about African-American leaders talk about being humiliated by white police, watched as the names and stories of black people killed by police in the last 10 years or so were shown on the TV, moved to tears by what I heard, but also by the fact I’ve heard similar stories so many times before. 

I am trying to make sense out of a world seemingly gone mad. I can’t.

I have had over the years friends who are African-American, or of another minority culture, even a couple of interracial relationships, but since going to college in south-central Los Angeles, I’ve never engaged enough with people of color outside of work-related situations. 

Over the years, I’ve sometimes engaged my racist relatives, friends, and strangers when they used the N-word around me, or when they talked about Asian people disparagingly, or when they made fun of gays, but mostly I’ve sat silent, not wanting to ruin the event that brought us together, or just unwilling in those moments to take on a confrontation if one arose. 

There’s also my own inherent biases I need to fight to overcome. Case in point: My cousin, Dominic, who died in December 1991 at age 23, shot and killed in the parking lot of a bar in Newark, N.J. Because Newark is a mostly black city with a high crime rate, I have always assumed the person who killed Little Dom was black. It’s never once occurred to me to check that and ask why I make that assumption. 

Until now.

I can’t sit silent anymore. We can’t sit silent anymore. We can no longer avoid the awkwardness of race conversations, or worry about the consequences, that some of our relationships and friendships are going to get frayed or torn entirely, because we all are not in agreement on this issue. If we were, this problem wouldn’t still be here, more than a half-century after we first seriously tried to address it. 

This is a fight for justice, for what is right, for what is moral, and it is too large to ignore any longer. 

My friends and I--and lots of other people--used to buy counterfeit $20 for anywhere between $2 and $4 in our neighborhood. We would buy something for a dollar, maybe $2, then pocket the real money change we received, putting a few extra dollars in our pockets until authorities several years later arrested the guy behind the scheme.

George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis because he was suspected of carrying a counterfeit $20. Had that been me apprehended by those same officers, or in the 1970s when I was doing my bad deed, I doubt I would have lost my life because of it. I doubt I even would have been arrested.

George Floyd--and all the people murdered before him for nothing more than being black--are dead because me and people like me failed to speak up forcefully enough when police departments rejected efforts to reform the way they police minority communities.

This also needs to be said: We’ve allowed police departments around this country to equip themselves to operate like armies, and their officers to look like invading soldiers. The militarization of police departments must stop, and officers need to become more of a part of the communities in which they patrol.

More important, the overwhelming majority of good police officers in this country need to speak up and identify the bad cops, report them, then testify against them in court when they are brought up on charges. The Thin Blue Line of silence and loyalty to the badge has to end, or nothing will change. Silence equals complicity.

But that change to police departments is unlikely to occur until white people, especially those of privilege, take up this cause and demand justice and fairness for everyone.

It appears the time has come to choose sides. 

Elie Wiesel, the revered peace activist, Nobel Prize winner, author, and Holocaust survivor--in many ways, the guiding moral authority at LRN, given his close relationship with, and influence on, our Founder and Chairman, Dov Seidman--said pick sides we must.

Wiesel wrote: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must become the center of the universe.”

Time to choose. Time to declare to the world who you are, and for what it is you stand.

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